Are you wondering what people mean when they say things like, “use your diaphragm”, “sing from your stomach, not from your throat!” or “support your voice with your air”? You might have heard of the importance of using proper breathing technique when you sing but be unsure how exactly to do it.
In this blog post I will demystify the difference between everyday breathing and singing breathing, explain in detail how singing breathing works, and of course give you some great exercises that will teach you how to use singing breathing like a professional singer. The subject of singing breathing is very important to me because it truly made me able to finally sing the way I wanted. Check out these videos and blog post to learn how to breathe properly when you sing.
Your Voice Needs Air to Make Sound
Your air sets your vocal folds in motion to make sound when you speak or sing and therefore without air, there is no voice. Try out this quick exercise to experience how important air is for your voice:
EXERCISE: Air Makes Your Voice
- Exhale as much as you can and then try to sing a loud and long note. Were you able to do it? It’s quite impossible without air right?
Everyday Breathing VS. Singing Breathing
Everyday Breathing Explained
The main purpose of your air in everyday life is to keep you alive by providing oxygen to your body. The second purpose is to provide your vocal folds with the air that makes them vibrate to create the sound that is your speaking voice. Luckily everyday breathing happens automatically without any conscious effort. The breath is shallow which causes your shoulders and chest to move upwards. In average the human breathing cycle consists of approximately 16 breaths per minute. The inhalation period is long and the exhalation period is short.
Singing Breathing Explained
The main purpose of your air during singing is to provide a steady air pressure that allows your vocal folds to vibrate freely to create the sound that is your singing voice. Singing breathing is a conscious effort that consists of deep breaths causing expansion around the abdomen while keeping the shoulders down to prevent muscle tension in the throat. The inhalation period in singing breathing is much shorter than in everyday breathing because the vocalist only has a short moment to breath between the sung phrases. The exhalation period when singing is much longer than the exhalation period in everyday breathing because the melodic phrases in songs are much longer than the length of the sentences we speak in everyday life.
How Singing Breathing Works
Now that you know why singing breathing is important let us get started on how to use it. To provide a steady stream of air to your vocal folds you will need to learn to control a big muscle called the diaphragm.
The diaphragm is attached to the bottom of your lungs and before you inhale it sits in a dome shape just below your lower rips. When you inhale the diaphragm contracts and flattens out which stretches the lungs downward so that air rushes in. Once you are ready to exhale the diaphragm releases its tension and returns to its dome shape which decreases the size of the lungs causing the air to rush out.
In everyday life the diaphragm does not stretch the lungs very much during inhalation and it releases the stretch of the lungs quickly so that the air rushes to your throat all at once. When you sing with shallow breathes it is hard on the throat because it has to tighten up in order to try and control the air pressure in the vocal folds.
When we sing we want to release the tension of the diaphragm gradually so that the air flows in a steady stream instead. This will allow you to sing long beautiful phrases with control and without tension in the throat; and it is this difference that people talk about when they say “sing from your stomach, not from your throat”. Try out the exercises below to start practicing controlling your diaphragm.
In the following exercises the goal is to see, and feel, and expansion around your abdomen as the diaphragm contracts. Try to keep your shoulders relaxed and down as you inhale as well as an overall good posture.
Raise a Book with your Stomach
- Lie down and place a book on your stomach. As you inhale try to lift it with your abdomen (right between the two lowest rips). Once you are able to lift and lower the book try to lift it and hold it in the air for five counts before you let it down.
- Stand up straight with lightly bended knees and look at yourself in a full body mirror. Place a hand on your chest and one on your diaphragm (between your lower rips with your pinky slightly above your belly button).
- Now imaging that you smell your favorite food and take in some quick sniffs. You should feel your hand on your diaphragm pushed out as you inhale. The hand on your chest should not move. You might have felt your chest move instead of your abdomen expanding. That is ok. Go back to the book on stomach exercise to reconnect with the feeling of your diaphragm contracting or move on to the next exercise.
Breath through a Fist
- Stand up straight with lightly bended knees and look at yourself in a full body mirror. Place a hand on your diaphragm between you lower rips and with your pinky slightly above your belly button.
- Curl your hand into a fist and put your thumb and index finger to your lips.
- Try sucking a quick breath through your fist and feel your abdomen push your hand outward.
Slurp up a Noodle
- Stand up straight with lightly bended knees and look at yourself in a full body mirror. Place a hand on your diaphragm between you lower rips and with your pinky slightly above your belly button. Place your other hand on your chest.
- Imagine the action of slurping up a whole noodle and feel your hand being pushed out by your abdomen.
The goal with singing exhalation is to facilitate a stead stream of air to your voice. To do that you have to expand your rib cage and keep it expanded as you exhale. Check out this video to learn exhalation technique for singing.
Exercise: Sss (sibilance)
- Stand in front a mirror and place a hand on your diaphragm.
- Practice releasing your air slowly and steadily by taking a deep singing breath and then saying sss sound. You should be able to feel your abdomen slowly decreasing its expansion as you expel the air.
- Now try the exercise with a long AH sound.
If you have been following along with the exercises so far in this blog post you should be having some conscious control of your diaphragm by now – and have worked out your abbs quite a bit 🙂
Breathing technique is great, and fun to practice, but it really only helps you as a singer if you are able to connect it to your voice and use it in your songs. So let’s start working on that now!
Exercise: Getting a Feeling for Support vs. no Support When You Sing
Lets practice connecting your voice with your air. really what I want you to be familiar with is how it feels when you sing from your diaphragm v.s. when you sing from your throat. This way you will know when you are doing it right and we can move on to applying breath support in your songs.
- Start by taking a nice deep breath for singing and then sing and AH sound at a place that is comfortable in the middle of your vocal range.
- now try making it into a pulsing sound by letting more air pass to your vocal folds from your “stomach”. Feel how it is regulated from the diaphragm (you can control the pulsating sound AH…AH…AH etc..
- Now take a breath like you would in everyday life by raising your shoulders and have no expansion by your stomach and sing an AH sound again.
- Then, try making the pulsating sound without any movement from your diaphragm. It’s not easy right. It’s actually hard to control the sound.
- Go back and forth between the two a few times to feel the difference.
Exercise: Incorporate Singing Breathing in your Favourite Vocal Exercises
- As you sing place a hand on your diaphragm to monitor your singing breathing and remember to look at yourself in the mirror to check that you are doing it right. As you go through the melodic patterns pay close attention to not switching to singing from your throat. Instead of switching, give more support from your diaphragm like when you were doing the pulsating motion in the previous exercise.
Ok now you are ready to use your breath support in your song! Start by adding breath marks (‘) so you know where to breath.
Exercise: Add Breath Marks to Your Songs
- Sing through a section of your song a cappella (without accompaniment) and mark down the places that you breathe.
- Now turn on your track and practice sticking to your breath marks. Place a hand on your diaphragm to remind yourself to your singing breathing throughout your song and remember to keep supporting your voice throughout the phrases.
This might seem like a lot at first but I promise you that it will soon be a habit if you practice it regularly. Eventually this will just be how you breathe when you sing 🙂
I hope this blog post was helpful. Please let me know, in the comments below, which exercise was your favourite in learning to control your diaphragm. It would be interesting to see if one of them is more helpful than the others. Thanks for geeking out with me!